Who decides and interprets planning policy … planners or lawyers?

Image from Flickr user Sebastian Niedlich, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

Image via Flickr user Sebastian Niedlich, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

By Morwen Johnson

Nathalie Lieven QC, barrister at Landmark Chambers, spoke at the RTPI’s 2015 Planning Convention on the shifting relationship between planners, policymakers and lawyers. Nathalie regularly appears at public inquiries and planning challenges in the High Court, appearing for both developers and local authorities.

Discussing the massive upsurge in litigation in planning, personified in the creation of the Planning Court in 2014, Nathalie suggested there had been a power grab by lawyers over the planning system in the last few years. She highlighted two main reasons: the decision of the Supreme Court in Tesco v Dundee City Council [2012] UKSC 13, and the introduction in England of the National Planning Policy Framework (‘NPPF’).

Recent shift in power

Prior to the Tesco case, interpretation of planning policy was seen as the task of the decision-maker. Cases only went to court if this interpretation was seen as ‘unreasonable’. This approach makes sense if you consider that planning policy tends not to have the level of semantic detail that is expected in law, and is also a recognition that application of policy can be different in different contexts.

The Supreme Court ruling however was that interpretation of policy in the case was a matter for the court and policy should be interpreted objectively. The aim may have been to create intellectual clarity and better decision-making, but the ruling has coincided with the introduction of NPPF, which is in some parts obscurely worded and also contradictory. With many development plans out of date, NPPF has become the critical determining document in planning appeals.

Particularly in residential housing appeals, the system now relies on both the interpretation of words in the NPPF and also previous rulings by High Court judges as to what the words mean. In respect of development planning, plans now get limited scrutiny and the role of the court also becomes more important. In the short-term therefore, power over planning decisions has shifted to the centre, in marked contrast to the Westminster government’s support for localism and devolution.

The role of the court is creating, in Nathalie’s words “a straitjacket for decision-makers, which limits their ability to apply policy flexibly”.

How local authorities can regain the balance of power

She suggested however that it is worth remembering that in the Tesco case, the Supreme Court was careful to say that the issue related to the application of policy to a given set of facts, rather than interpretation of policy generally.

Planning authorities can therefore turn the ruling to their advantage by drafting planning policies in a hard-edged way. As policies need to be applied in a consistent and objective way, the clearer the development plan, the less room for appeal.


Morwen Johnson is Managing Editor of the Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal, which is published by Idox.

More information on the journal and how to subscribe can be found here.

3 thoughts on “Who decides and interprets planning policy … planners or lawyers?

  1. Pingback: Planning for later life … where does retirement housing fit in strategic planning? | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

  2. Pingback: The changing landscape of planning: views from the Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Conference 2015 | Idox iview

  3. Pingback: The changing landscape of planning: views from the Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Conference 2015 | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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